C-suite career advice: Tony Whitelaw, Kyndryl

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Ensure you know what value you bring to the business, and then make sure others can recognise that value, too.”

Headshot of Tony Whitelaw, CMO at Kyndryl
Kyndryl

Name: Tony Whitelaw

Company: Kyndryl

Job Title: CMO

Location: UK

Tony Whitelaw leads the marketing function for Kyndryl UK and Ireland, developing the marketing strategy to enhance the reputation of Kyndryl in key growth areas and generate new relationships and opportunities for our sales teams and channel partners. With over 28 years of experience in the IT Services industry, Whitelaw is B2B Marketing Award winning marketing leader, equipped with a growth mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit, combined with a proven track record of designing and delivering innovative data-driven marketing campaigns which delight customers and deliver outcomes that matter. Whitelaw is passionate about creativity and telling stories that connect with audiences.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? One that always stuck with me, especially working in a large organisation was “never take a "no" from someone who cannot say "yes"”.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Not so much business advice, but lack of -  I always wished someone had sat me down at the start of my career and had the really boring but crucial discussion about pensions, why they matter and what a big impact a pension, or lack of, can make later in life.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? When I used to mentor young professionals during their placement year, my advice was quite simple: make sure you put yourself out of your comfort zone. Build a library of moments that matter, whether its volunteering for that stretch project or getting involved in CSR. Having a collection of real life, varied examples you can use on your CV and in interviews to demonstrate your skills and attributes is invaluable.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Yes! When I was in school I wanted to be a computer programmer, and hopefully someday become a systems analyst.

What was your first job in IT/tech? Developing an online help system on Silicon Graphics for military applications – so I can't really say much more about it! 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That it's about tech (I'm only partly joking!) Tech is an enabler to reach business outcomes and ultimately there are only three basic business outcomes; to increase revenue, reduce costs and reduce risk. As well as understanding how the tech works, you need to make sure you understand how it supports a business to achieve one of these three fundamental outcomes. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Ensure you know what value you bring to the business, and then make sure others can recognise that value, too. 

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? The main career ambition I have left is to work abroad for a period. I have always been slightly envious of those who have been able to work in different countries for an extended time and really get to understand the people and culture.  

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I like to think I do. It can fluctuate between busy and really busy, but I always look to make space for me. I like to get outside and do some kind of exercise, e.g. a walk, run or bike ride. I find it helps to clear the mind, giving you the mental space to solve the challenging problems.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I have often been asked this question and there are occasions where I wish I had moved companies and organisations, to give me more exposure to different company cultures. However, on balance I don't think I would change anything. Working in a huge institution of a company with an opportunity to move between completely different disciplines from developer, tester, technical solution finder, administrator, resourcing and ultimately marketing has served me incredibly well. It allowed me to explore tangential career moves with minimal risk. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Always the degree route for me, not that I have anything against bootcamps. I personally think you get to learn so much more than your subject if you are fortunate enough to be able to attend a university and secure a degree. 

How important are specific certifications? Certifications can be crucially important and can quite often be the key to unlocking opportunities, especially early in your career. However, the certificate must go hand in hand with the opportunity to exercise the skill – to get hands on practice. It’s also important to be conscious of timing, to make sure you are investing your skills in the certifications for skills that are in demand in the market. Back in the mid-nineties, I became a fully qualified Novell 4.1 CNE, the pervasive Server Operating system at the time, and the one used by the customer account that I was working on. At the same time, Windows NT 4.0 was just taking off – and history tells the rest of the story. So having the right skills at the right time is crucial. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Teamwork and Collaboration is an essential skill. I look for those who recognise the value in collaborating with their peers above self-promotion – they will create value within the group rather than destroy it. 

I also look for candidates who can demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving. Uncertainty and ambiguity is increasingly prevalent, and the ability to navigate issues is incredibly valuable. 

And whilst it might be a traditional value, I also have a lot of time for those who are professional and have a strong work ethic. When working in teams, delivering complex projects in tight timescales, you look to those who will step up, be with you to get the job done. I always sought to be that teammate in those scenarios, and I look for it in others. 

What would put you off a candidate? Arrogance – I have no time for those who believe they are entitled to a position or a promotion without the skills, experience and dedication which go with it.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Being unprepared – not doing research on your prospective role is unforgivable. 

Failing to ask questions – another example of either being unprepared or a lack of curiosity.  

Talking and not listening during the interview – whilst it’s vitally important a candidate talks to convey themselves in the best light, it’s also important that they listen to the question being asked, or pick up on feedback in the interview, to allow them to adopt their responses accordingly.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  I think a good grasp of both is essential, but when working in business, the ability to impart your conceptual ideas to your teams and stakeholder and secure consensus to move forward to the next stage, trumps most of the other skills.